Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel. Beatrice and Virgil. A Novel. Random House, 2011.

Beatrice and Virgil is about a couple of Henry's, a donkey, and a howler monkey. Henry, the first person narrator of the novel, is a successful author whose idea for his second novel has been politely and kindly but quite definitively rejected by his publisher and agent. In the first part of the book, he describes his rejected idea and his thinking behind it. He wants to explore the possibility of writing about the Holocaust as fiction and metaphor. He writes, "A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality? ... Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.... Art as suitcase, light, portable, essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?" (p. 11). To explain the thinking behind his fiction, Henry decides to begin his novel with an essay, and he gives substantial thought as to how best to present the combination novel and essay. How can he make sure the reader  reads the essay and does it matter whether it is read first or last? Henry decides to turn the book into a flip book--read one way from one end, turn around and over, and begin another text from the other side. It has been done before but not often. Thus, neither the essay nor the novel is privileged and the reader can freely choose, without hierarchy, where to begin his or her sojourn through the linked works.

The rejection of this completed work of five years throws Henry into a crisis and he and his wife decide to pack up and move to an unidentified city outside of the United States. "They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin" (p 21).   His wife easily finds work and Henry is involved in theater. They adopt a cat and a dog and are expecting a child. In the midst of this seemingly settled life, Henry receives an unsolicited scene from a play, accompanied by "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitator" the striking feature of which is the young Julian's love of killing animals, in large numbers, with relish, and without regret. Although in the end he achieves sainthood Julian is apparently absolved without asking forgiveness or expressing regret. The scene from the play that arrived with the legend, involves two characters, Beatrice and Virigil, who are discussing the merits of a pear. One of them has eaten a pear, and one of them has never seen a pear. Henry is intrigued by the juxtaposition of the play and the legend, and decides to find the writer, who in his letter, has asked Henry to help him with the play. The playwright is also named Henry.

Henry's first visit to Henry the playwright who is also a taxidermist, leads to many more visits. They discuss the play, and Henry the novelist, tries to understand the motives behind the play as well as the connection to the St. Julian legend. Henry the taxidermist never gives him the entire play to read, and rather than hand him pages, insists on reading it aloud. It gradually becomes clear to the novelist through more subtle and less subtle details that the play is in fact a fiction about the Holocaust told from the perspective of Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey, both of whom are victims of a regime of hate. It is in fact, the very thing that the novelist had hoped to accomplish. The play about, as Henry the novelist thinks of it at one point, "the abomination of animals," is never far from his mind and he works on sections of it, makes suggestions to Henry the taxidermist, and is fully engaged in its development. But as the novel progresses, Henry's views of the taxidermist as benign writer in a dying profession begin to change.

Although Henry, for various reasons leaves the play and its author behind, the characters of Beatrice and Virgil stay with him. In the end, it is the memory of these tragic charters that leads him to begin writing again.

As I started to read this novel, I was surprised at how much Beatrice and Virgil were not the subject of the novel. Yes and no.  I liked Life of Pi very much and after reading that read Martel's novella, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (no animals in this one, but it is a story about creating a story), which is an amazing piece of writing, so I was looking forward to a new novel by Yann Martel. But when I read the review of Beatrice and Virgil and what I picked up was that this was a story about a donkey and a monkey and that just didn't really excite me.  I  couldn't bring myself to read the novel. I don't know if it was a terrible review written by someone who hadn't read the novel, or if I skimmed the review so mercilessly I didn't pick up any of the important points. At any rate, this novel is so much more than a story about a donkey and a monkey although they are central to the novel, both in their theatrical representation and in their preserved form as products of the taxidermist. As I started the novel, I was immediately drawn into Martel's writing. He is thoughtful, and is not afraid to give the reader something to work with. Indeed, his novel, although not a flip book, is very much the rejected work he describes in the opening segment of the novel.

Why so important to fictionalize the Holocaust? To make it a large and universal, perhaps timeless story that goes beyond the individual stories we hear and read about, to make it part of our ancestral memory, a story that is retold, a fable, a cautionary tale, a nightmare, a horror story, something that brings all the threads and thoughts and pieces together into something that can never be forgotten or diminished. It is hard to imagine that this could happen, that we could forget or lose touch with this historical reality, but we are still within living memory of the murder of the European Jews, and one day, we won't be and in this small piece of fiction, the stage is set.

Martel's adroit use of animals in his novels makes me think of the writer, who according to Wikipedia is currently living in Philadelphia, Josh Emmons. I heard him read a short story at Grinnell College where he spent a year running the creative writing program a few years back. The story was essentially a fable with animals--it has been awhile--but it was an excellent reading and an excellent story. It looks like he has two novels published--so perhaps next on my list.

But back to Martel--read this book. It is barely 200 pages, and, while it will give you plenty to think about it, it is a beautiful novel and you will not find yourself struggling to get into it or reluctant to turn the next page.

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